What to Do If Your College Student Gets COVID-19

sick college student wrapped in blanket

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Sending your child off to college is challenging enough, but doing it during a pandemic can be downright nerve-wracking. After all, no one wants to get that call that their child has tested positive for coronavirus.

Even with vaccinations, students are still experiencing breakthrough cases of the virus, so you need to be prepared. Do you bring your student home? Do you encourage them to isolate at school? How do you track their symptoms?

Joseph Gastaldo, MD

If your child tests positive for COVID-19, the first thing I would do is take a big, deep breath.

— Joseph Gastaldo, MD

"If your child tests positive for COVID-19, the first thing I would do is take a big deep breath," says Joseph Gastaldo, MD, an infectious disease specialist and the system medical director of infectious diseases for OhioHealth. "Generally speaking, younger people without health conditions do better and if they are vaccinated they are less likely to get COVID-19 and if they do, they are less likely to have severe disease."

Whether you are planning ahead or you have already received the dreaded news that your child has tested positive, there are steps you can take to get through their illness.

Develop a Preventative Action Plan

In an ideal situation, you would develop an action plan prior to your student getting sick. But even if you did not think to put a plan in place prior to your child's positive test results, you can still formulate a plan now.

It is especially important to be prepared if your child has any pre-existing conditions, says Joseph Gastaldo, MD, an infectious disease specialist and the system medical director of infectious diseases for OhioHealth. Kids who are overweight or have diabetes, asthma, or a compromised immunity are more at risk, he says. 

"Regardless of their vaccination status, if they have a serious medical condition, they have access to be considered for monoclonal antibodies or the antiviral medication, Molnupiravir, which is not yet FDA approved but tentatively available to at-risk people with COVID-19," Dr. Gastaldo says.

The key is to make sure as soon as your child shows symptoms that they get tested because there is a small window of opportunity for these two treatment options, Dr. Gastaldo says. If they delay getting tested, they may not qualify.

Once your child tests positive, they may not need to see a doctor right away, Dr. Gastaldo indicates. Most students won't need to see a medical professional unless they have a pre-existing medical condition or have severe symptoms. This visit may be able to be done through a telehealth service, too.

Key Things to Consider

  • Ask your child to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu, if they are not already.
  • Encourage them to get tested as soon as they experience symptoms.
  • Make sure you have access to your student's medical information.
  • Know how the college plans to care for sick students if your student lives on campus.
  • Provide your child with supplies like acetaminophen, a thermometer, a pulse oximeter, and multivitamins.
  • Connect with a healthcare provider in the area.
  • Know where the nearest pharmacy is located.
  • Make sure your student has a copy of their health insurance card.

Know Your College's Procedures

Nearly every college has a plan in place on how to handle positive COVID-19 results from their students. Find out how your student's college is handling coronavirus cases and what you can expect from them.

For instance, many schools have online COVID-19 dashboards that provide information to parents and students about everything from the number of cases on campus to the number of quarantine beds available. They also include information on how positive cases will be handled including where students will be housed and how they will be cared for while in isolation.

You also may want to find out how the college handles missed lectures and assignments due to being sick. Encourage your student to contact their professors to let them know they will be out and for how long, especially if this is not something the college's coronavirus team handles.

Finally, make sure your child knows where to turn for help, Dr. Gastaldo says. This may be someone on campus. Loyola University Chicago, for example, hired COVID Care Coordinators who handle all things related to the students' care and wellbeing. Students have the number of their COVID Care Coordinator and can reach out to them 24 hours a day. Additionally, a nurse practitioner checks in on the student on day two or three.

"Our COVID Care Coordinators ensure the wellbeing of student in isolation," says Joan Holden, DMP, APRN, ANP-BC, the director of the wellness center at Loyola University Chicago. "They can answer questions as needed and do contact tracing. All of them received special training through the Johns Hopkins Medical Center."

Check in With Them Regularly

It is important to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that it is best if students isolate where they are rather than come home when they are positive for COVID-19. This will likely mean you'll be checking in with your student regularly. Explain to them that you will be checking in with them daily, possibly even several times a day.

Establish this expectation early so that they know to respond to your video calls or text messages. If this expectation is not communicated and you have trouble connecting with them, it may cause you to become anxious and worry unnecessarily.

Joan Holden, DMP, APRN, ANP-BC

Make sure they know they will be asked to isolate for 10 days and that they should cooperate with contact tracing.

— Joan Holden, DMP, APRN, ANP-BC

As for monitoring your child's health, Dr. Gastaldo suggests using some form of video to communicate with your child whether that is through FaceTime, Skype, or even Zoom. The key is that you are seeing their face so that you can see how they are doing—not just physically but mentally as well. "I like video visits because you can see what they look like," he says. "You can see the color of their skin and if they are they short-winded."

For some kids, the anxiety about having tested positive is worse than the disease itself, so monitor your child for signs of distress and reassure them every chance you get. Your child needs to know that they are not alone and that you are there for them.

"At Loyola, students that are having mental health issues can talk to their COVID Care Coordinator for suggestions or call the after-hours mental health resource line and speak to a therapist on the phone." Find out what mental health resources your child's school offers. You also should focus on being a good listener and validate their concerns.

Finally, make sure your student knows the expectations for isolation and quarantine. "Parents should also be honest with their student," says Holden. "Make sure they know they will be asked to isolate for 10 days and that they should cooperate with contact tracing."

It's not uncommon for students to worry about their health, their ability to keep their grades up, and the social implications of having COVID-19.

To help lessen some of their student's fears, some parents get creative with their communications by sending care packages, delivering food, or making funny family videos. Others choose to rent a hotel room or stay with family members near where their student is attending school. Even though they cannot see their child until the isolation period is over, it sometimes helps to know that there is someone close by should an emergency arise.

Monitor Their Symptoms and Care

Whether your student is isolating on campus in a dorm or off-campus in an apartment, it is important that you check-in and determine how they are feeling. Do they have a fever? Do they feel winded? Are they sleeping OK? Are they eating well?

"During a video call, ask them to get up and walk around the room," Dr. Gastaldo suggests. "You should also ask what they are eating. When you are sick you tend not to eat, but you burn more calories when you are sick. It's important that they eat a well-balanced diet—at least three meals a day."

Keep a diary or journal of your child's symptoms and their meals. Include the date and time and any complaints they have. You also should track their temperature and how much water they are drinking. And, if you have provided them with a pulse oximeter, make sure you are recording the readings. This information will be vital if they should happen to get worse or need medical care.

Also, keep in mind that if your child is over the age of 18, they are no longer considered a minor and unless they give you permission you cannot access their educational records or their medical records.

As a result, it is good idea to get a signed Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release signed. You may even ask that they sign a medical power of attorney form. Both forms are available online and give healthcare providers permission to share medical information with you, especially in an emergency.

Build a Support Network

You may want to encourage friends and family members to check in with your student as well. The more people they hear from the less isolated they will feel, Dr. Gastaldo says.

"Think about your child's support system," he says. "Ask yourself what their chosen school family looks like. Do they have close friends that can check-in or localized family members that can take them food or supplies? Encourage people to stay connected virtually."

Being completely isolated and alone for 10 days is not easy, especially when you are not feeling well. Make sure your student knows that they are not alone—that there are people in their life who love them and are there for them.

Ditch the Shame and Guilt

You don't have to scroll far through your social media feeds to see criticizing and shaming about COVID-19. People automatically assume students were not careful or that they are unvaccinated when they get sick.

Consequently, you may want to think twice before sharing the news that your student is sick. Instead, limit your communication to the people you know and trust like close friends and family members.

You also should refrain from judging your student's behavior or criticizing them for getting sick.

Now is not the time to talk about the safety precautions they should have followed or question them about their mask use. Instead, try to be reassuring, empathetic, and compassionate. "There is a lot of COVID-19 shaming," Dr. Gastaldo says. "Kids need to feel comfortable coming forward. We also want them to know that they have unconditional love and support."

Remember, your child doesn't feel well. The last thing they need is to feel guilty or judged because they are sick. Due to the contagiousness of this virus, we all have a risk of getting the infection, vaccinated or not. "This virus is not going away," says Dr. Gastaldo. "We will all have a date with this infection—we cannot 'out healthy' getting COVID-19."

A Word From Verywell

Learning that your child has tested positive for COVID-19 while they are miles from home can feel frightening and overwhelming. But rest assured that most young people handle the virus fairly well and get better quickly, especially if they have been vaccinated.

If your child has tested positive, it is important to take a deep breath and relax. You will both get through this. Then, after you have allowed your mind to adjust to the news, it is time to swing into action.

Make sure you know how the college handles positive cases and establish a plan for regular communication with your student. As long as you work together and know what to do if their symptoms worsen, the 10-day isolation period should go by quickly. Before you know it, things will be back to normal.

1 Source
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for institutions of higher education. Updated July 23, 2021.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.